[19 October 2009]
The stellar 2003 Dolly Parton tribute album, Just Because I’m a Woman, features a fine batch of rock and country flavored arrangements of Dolly Parton songs performed by Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones, and Melissa Etheridge, amongst others. It’s a great, highly listenable set, but as flavorful as it is, nothing in it quite prepares the listener for Meshell Ndegeocello’s penultimate track—an elastic-funk re-imagination of Parton’s party-ready hit “Two Doors Down”. Beat-centric, atmospheric, and half-rapped, Ndegeocello’s re-working of the Parton classic is not only sly and musically imaginative, it’s also an apt embodiment of Ndegeocello’s overall approach: bold, adventurous, defiantly singular, and funky as hell.
I’m convinced that if Meshell Ndegeocello’s work and persona weren’t so thoroughly infused with a hip-hop spirit, it would be much easier for music-heads to locate her as part of the same continuum as Bob Dylan, Prince, Neil Young, and other quirky pop maverick-geniuses known for bravely and consistently paving their own path in the industry. As an (often) bald, (always) black bi-sexual female bassist who raps as much as she sings, writes deeply and confrontationally about race and sex (amongst other things), and mashes-up genres with every project, Ndegeocello’s mere presence on the scene (let alone the gestalt of her work) presents a taxonomical problem to solve for a large segment of music lovers, and an even trickier problem for those specifically on the lookout for singer-songwriters who may be the rightful heirs to the rock royalty named above. Part of the difficulty for some of these folks, of course, is the fact that killer grooves and textured rhythm parts (which are treasured elements in funk and hip-hop, while sometimes mere arrangement considerations in other genres), no matter how intricately conceived and executed, are still often not considered components of “great songwriting”, although they are, perhaps hypocritically, definitely understood as potential building blocks of “great records”. Hence, someone like Jeff Tweedy, who I like and respect quite a bit, is generally considered to be one of the handful of Gen X songwriters who deserves a place in the pantheon of great, adventurous artists, while Ndegeocello, who has traversed much more diverse ground, including a fairly straightforward guitar-based singer-songwriter album (1999’s gorgeous Bitter), is often in danger of being considered a high-profile cult artist.
I recommend the aforementioned Bitter as a starting point for folks who want to get familiar with Ndegeocello’s music. Soulful, affecting, and beautifully produced by the abundantly gifted Craig Street, it’s a warm introduction to Ndegocello’s music, and a wonderful way to first encounter her enticing and intimate vocal style. It also includes one of her patented unique covers, Jimi Hendrix’s “May This Be Love”. From there, you can have lots of fun jumping around to prior or subsequent releases, each one an adventure.
What was the first song you fell in love with, and what is your current relationship to the piece?
“Soft and Wet” by Prince. It just sounded angelic, the way his vocals were layered, and it made me want to dance. It’s still the song and the album that made me say, “That’s what I’m gonna do.”
Who is your favorite “unsung” artist or songwriter, someone who you feel never gets their due? Talk a little bit about him/her.
Doyle Bramhall II. When he sings a song, his heart is just on the stage. He transports me. He’s an incredible songwriter and a ridiculous guitarist. He’s also just a nice person.
Is there an artist, genre, author, filmmaker, etc. who/which has had a significant impact/influence on you, but that influence can’t be directly heard in your music?
Probably most. Film for sure. I love Fassbinder. I have a lyric on the new record that goes “fear eats the soul”, which is from a title of one of his films.
Do you view songwriting as a calling, a gig, a hobby, other…?
Other. It’s a transmission.
Name one contemporary song that encourages you about the future of songwriting/pop music.
“Love Dog” by TV on the Radio. They give me hope.
On Meshell Ndegocello’s newest release, Devil’s Halo, she continues her tradition of curve-ball covers, this time with an undulating, super-sexy version of “Love You Down”, the ‘80s R&B hit originally performed by Ready for the World. Because the songs she covers can sometimes be nearly unrecognizable in her renderings, it’s tempting to call her arrangements “complete deconstructions”, but I think a more accurate term would be “creative distillations”: she gets to the heart of each piece and retains what’s needed (whether it’s a musical component or not), and proceeds from there to build a new version. In her hands, “Love You Down” is completely transformed.
Ndegeocello was definitely my adopted spiritual patron saint when I was working on my version of Pixies’ “I Bleed” (which featured Oakland’s mighty funk-soul queen, FEMI) for American Laundromat Records’ Pixies tribute album, Dig for Fire. That record featured tracks by the Rosebuds, They Might Be Giants, and other indie-rock stalwarts. Knowing that I would be the only non-indie-rocker on the project, and hearing stories about the ferocity of Pixies fans regarding covers of the group’s material, was a little daunting at first, but I took inspiration in the implicit attitude of Ndegeocello’s Parton cover—- the message I took from it was to wear my stylistic difference loud and proud.